Two US warships are operating in the South China Sea, the US Navy said yesterday, with three regional security sources saying that the ships were near an area of a standoff between China and Malaysia.
The Haiyang Dizhi 8, a Chinese government research ship, was spotted last week conducting a survey close to an exploration vessel operated by Malaysia’s state-owned Petroliam Nasional (Petronas), months after it undertook a similar patrol off Vietnam.
The incident prompted the US to call on China to stop its “bullying behavior” in the disputed waters, citing concern over Beijing’s provocative actions toward offshore oil and gas developments there.
The US Department of State has said that China was taking advantage of the region’s focus on the COVID-19 pandemic to “coerce its neighbors.”
The USS America amphibious assault ship and the USS Bunker Hill guided-missile cruiser have been deployed and are operating in the South China Sea, US Indo-Pacific Command spokeswoman Nicole Schwegman said in an e-mailed statement.
“Through our continued operational presence in the South China Sea, we are working ... to promote freedom of navigation and overflight, and the international principles that underpin security and prosperity for the Indo-Pacific,” Schwegman said. “The US supports the efforts of our allies and partners to determine their own economic interests.”
US Navy Rear Admiral Fred Kacher, commander of the USS America Expeditionary Strike Group, said that his forces had interacted this week with Chinese naval forces in the South China Sea.
“All our interactions continue to be safe and professional with them,” Kacher said by telephone from the USS America.
Schwegman did not state the exact location of the warships, but security sources said on condition of anonymity that the vessels were close to the Haiyang Dizhi 8 and the Petronas-operated West Capella drill ship.
The area is near waters claimed by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as China through its sweeping claim to most of the South China Sea within its U-shaped “nine-dash line,” which is not recognized by its neighbors or most of the world.
China has denied reports of a stand-off, saying that the Haiyang Dizhi 8 is conducting normal activities.
“The ‘confrontation’ at sea you mention did not happen,” the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a faxed statement on Monday.
Petronas and the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Chinese survey vessel’s moves this month come as Beijing ramps up coronavirus diplomacy, donating large supplies of medical equipment and aid to Southeast Asian countries.
A team of Chinese medical experts this week arrived in Malaysia.
The US has accused China of taking advantage of the distraction of the pandemic to advance its presence in the South China Sea.
Vietnam on Sunday protested after China said that it had established two administrative districts on the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) and the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) in the disputed waters.
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